One of the most debilitating parts of a paper can be the last 1 or 2 pages. At this point, you’ve managed to figure out the shape of your argument, you’ve gotten through your most important points and you’re ready to move on with your life. Overcoming the urge to just stop writing at this stage might be the true test of a writer’s mettle. You accomplished what you set out to do. Boom. It should be done right?
Let’s hop into the reader’s shoes for a minute. He or she might be intrigued by your introductory signposts, meander along your train of thought for a while only to walk off the edge of a cliff. You don’t want to invite your reader in for a cup of tea and then kick them out the door; they will feel used and bewildered. You want them to go back to their business at the natural ending point of your paper on their own volition, walking happily home with a full belly and satisfied smile. Of course, as the host, you can give clues to your reader to let them know that they might be encroaching on your hospitality.
But I don’t want to give you that tired advice of using transitional signals such as “in conclusion,” “finally,” “to finish,” etc. because I feel like these are the directional equivalent of hitting your reader over the head with a 2×4, or turning on the fire alarm so your guest rushes out the door. Another option is to repeat your introduction, but regurgitating your intro never feels good to both reader and writer. I’ve had many students tell me how pointless they found writing conclusions this way. So I’ll give you a few tips to facilitate a satisfactory conclusion without busting anyone’s eardrums or succumbing to wild kicking.
First, when you’ve reached the terminus of your paper you want to ask yourself: what are you concluding? In order to figure out a proper ending, you’re going to want to be able to articulate what it’s about, what your argument is, what you are using as support, where you stand on the issue, and why anyone would want to read your paper. Ideally, many of the answers should be in your introduction, but it’s not going to have everything and even if it does you’ve still got to let the reader know you intend to end in a satisfactory way.
Have you ever seen a paper with an alluring title? Often it contains a quote. It’s usually there for a reason. Sure it grabs your attention, but the way it earns your consideration is to create an unsaid promise with the reader: somewhere in the paper the author will touch upon this provocative title and either explain it or show how it fits in with the rest of the content. You can fulfill this promise in your conclusion, what better way to end a paper than to finally give the reader what s/he wanted to begin with? Giving this nod to the reader reminds them partially of what they came here for, while picking up some new information along the way. You don’t want it to be too gimmicky as a plot twist at the end, but it’s always an exciting moment to tie everything back to a specific moment in the text.
Write a Tangible Context or Illustration
You don’t have to have a catchy title to tie up the loose ends of a paper, you could just revisit an earlier idea in your paper in a refreshing way. You could even bring in a new scene, image, or relevant quote that illustrates what your paper is about. The more specific you are the better. It’s kind of like when you make a joke with a group of friends and then as the night goes on someone says something that connects back to that original joke and everyone laughs because they get the reference. Instead, you set up an inside joke with the reader, and then at the end you hit them with the surprise punchline.
Explain Your Findings
There’s no writing without discovery. What did you learn from writing this paper? What can other people learn from reading this? These questions can help you place your paper into a larger discussion. This thought experiment by Kenneth Burke may be overused in college writing contexts, but it’s a healthy way to think of what it means to write a paper and how one can go about ending one:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (The Philosophy of Literary Form 110-111)
While the discussion itself is interminable, the hour does grow late, you aren’t going to spend all your time on your paper, you’ve got to end somewhere, but it is you that is leaving the discussion, not the reader. Successfully concluding is simply letting your friends know that you’re leaving. One way to go is to lay down the significance of your discussion. This way, though you are going away, you show the reader where they could pick up the discussion again and continue if they wanted to.
Point to Something Larger
This is one of my personal favorites. Remember that no matter what you end up writing, you will never have the last word on any given issue. Think about it this way: in your conclusion you manage to re-hash your main points into a neat sound-byte that perfectly mirrors the introduction. Sure there’s satisfaction in order, thoughts falling into place and clicking shut, but maybe it’s best if you don’t shut the door too tightly, or at the least, don’t slam it. Obviously you need to finish what you have begun, but leave the paper open just enough so we can get a glimpse beyond the ideas that you address, the big questions and ideas your paper borrows from. The world is too big to have the last word on anything. You want to end strongly, but there is a limit to what you can put into your paper. There will always be new questions; in fact, all answers will lead to new questions. When you’re about to leave, try ending with some of the world’s possibility in your conclusion.